This post is by Christoph Janz from Point Nine Land - Medium
Tips & tricks for better video meetings
If you know Point Nine a bit, you probably know that we’ve always worked as a distributed team and have always had an a̶w̶k̶w̶a̶r̶d̶l̶y unusually geo-agnostic approach to making seed investments. When Pawel and I started P9 almost ten years ago, Pawel was in Berlin, while I was on a sabbatical on Barbados. The first investments that we did together included startups in Canada (Clio) and New Zealand (Vend). We did open an office in Berlin later on but have always kept our remote-friendly culture and our geo-agnostic investment strategy.
One thing that this entails is that I spend a lot of time in video conferences. As I find video meetings with poor audio/video quality really exhausting (and love tinkering around), I’ve become a bit of a go-to-guy for video conferencing technology in my social and business circles.
With the entire world moving into social distancing about six months ago it became clear that if anything I’ll spend more rather than less time in video meetings in the future, which I considered to be a great excuse to upgrade my video conferencing setup. The reactions to the latest upgrade ranged from „looks super high def, almost like a TV studio“ and „looks like a professional photoshoot, is this a DSLR?“ to „this looks almost fake, somehow makes you look better than natural“ (thank you). There’s no shortage of articles and guides on video conferencing, but since so many people asked me about my setup I thought it would be worth sharing a few details and tips with a broader audience.
Inspired by Garry Tan’s post about the topic, I did a bit of research and learned that any entry-level DSLR (or comparable mirrorless camera) produces much better video quality than almost any webcam that you’ll find on the market. The reason is that DSLRs or similar mirrorless cameras come with much higher-quality lenses that provide more contrast, are much better at handling different lighting situations and let you control your video’s depth of field.
If you apply a shallow depth of field, you can put the subject (in this case yourself) in focus and make the background a little blurred. You might know this effect, called „bokeh“, from the (IMO very impressive) portrait feature of modern iPhones. Webcams, in contrast, have a very deep depth of field, so everything in the image or video is equally sharp and clear, which doesn’t look great.
As you can see in the screenshot below, the difference is quite dramatic. Note that the right part was taken with a Logitech C270 HD, which is a really cheap webcam. If you use a better webcam, e.g. a Logitech Brio, the difference to the DSLR won’t be quite as stark.
The downside of using a DSLR as a webcam is the significantly higher price (unless you compare it to a super high-end webcam) and the fact that the solution is a bit less plug & play than using a standard webcam.
If you want to go for it, here’s what you need:
(1) A DSLR or mirrorless camera that
- provides “clean HDMI” output (so that you get a clean video stream without the camera UI)
- you can set to run permanently (some cameras have a 30-minute recording limit)
- can be connected to a power plug (for uninterrupted power supply)
I bought a Canon EOS 250D and a “dummy battery” that lets you connect the camera to a power socket.
(2) A lens with a focal length (or zoom range) that fits your room setup (i.e. the distance between you and the camera).
I have an 18–55mm zoom lens, but I’m still toying with the idea of getting a fixed-length lens with a wider aperture (these lenses are super expensive, which kept me from buying one so far — Moore’s law unfortunately doesn’t seem to apply to optical lenses!).
(3) A tripod
(4) A video capturing device like the Elgato Camlink
Canon has recently released a new software that lets you use some Canon cameras as webcams without any additional hardware. If this works well you may not need the Elgato Camlink.
Is it worth it?
It depends. For most people, a good webcam (with good lighting) should be good enough, but if you are doing enterprise sales meetings over video, webinars with customers, or presentations at virtual conferences, the professional appearance might be worth spending some of the money that you’re currently saving on flights. 🙂 Another factor is, of course, if you already happen to own a DSLR that you can use as a webcam, since the DSLR is by far the most expensive part of the setup.
Another alternative to consider is using your smartphone as a webcam. Modern iPhones, for example, have much better cameras than most webcams, and there are several apps (e.g. EpocCam) that let you use e.g. an iPhone as a webcam.
Whether you go for a DSLR or stick to your webcam, good lighting makes a big difference.
Natural sunlight is best, but since I do lots of calls late at night, I bought an Elgato Key Light. What’s nice about the Elgato is that you can control the color temperature and brightness from your phone, but there are many other cheaper alternatives that will do the job.
Portrait photographers like to use three light sources to (literally) present you in the best light, but unless you really want to turn your home office into a TV studio you don’t need to go that far. Just make sure that you have a bright light directed at your face and that there’s no bright light behind you.
3. Camera position
In order to look someone in the eyes in a video meeting, your camera would have to be placed in front of your screen, close to where your counterparts’ eyes are located on the screen. Not ideal because then a part of your screen would be obscured by the camera.
There are a few interesting technological approaches to solving this problem, e.g. having a camera integrated into the screen (not yet technically feasible AFAIK); using software to “correct” the position of your eyes in your video stream (a bit creepy?); or (mis)using a teleprompter (this looks like a cool DIY project).
There’s no simple, perfect solution, but if you make sure that your camera is as close to your screen as possible you’re fine. If you have enough space to sit 1–2 meters away from your screen, you can also try placing your camera in front of the screen. That’s what I’m doing, as you can see in the pictures here.
Getting great audio quality in “hybrid meetings”, where some people are in the same physical room and others join over video can be a real pain. In my experience, trying to capture the voices of a group of people who are sitting around a table using one device in the middle of the table just doesn’t work very well, even if you use a beamforming microphone that’s supposed to automatically aim at the active speaker. It took us a lot of time, trial & error, and ultimately a mixer with ten table microphones to solve that issue in our office.
Fortunately, it’s much easier for remote-only meetings where each participant uses his or her own computer. If everyone plugs in a simple headset (like the EarPods that used to come with the iPhone) and goes on mute if there’s a lot of background noise, you’ll get excellent audio quality.
If you prefer a wireless headset, make sure to get one with an external microphone that can be placed very close to your mouth. Based on my experience these microphones are much better at capturing your voice than “true wireless” headphones or other headsets where the microphone is integrated into the earpiece.
FWIW, I’ve experienced a lot of connection issues with Bluetooth headsets on my Mac mini. If you experience the same you may want to go for a DECT headset or one that comes with a USB dongle that has a separate Bluetooth chip.
When I don’t want to wear a headset, I currently use the Jabra Speak 710 but a podcast microphone or a lavalier mic would probably provide much clearer audio. As you can see, my journey towards the perfect A/V setup isn’t over yet.
Want to look better than natural on your next video call? was originally published in Point Nine Land on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.